Coal camp Christmas memories

By Dwight Williamson

Dwight Williamson, Logan County MagistrateChristmastime brings back many memories for me. The smell of a fresh cut pine tree standing in the living room and the crackling of a fire built to keep us warm while sleigh riding off the schoolhouse hill at Verdunville is what comes to mind as I wander back to the days when I was considered a “Porch Sitter.” The “Porch Sitters” were numerous coal camp kids of varying ages who claimed the concrete porch of the No. 16 Island Creek company store as their domain—both in daytime when it was open, and at night when it was not. All the world may be a stage, as Shakespeare once declared, but our world was basically the coal camp community of Mud Fork, and our stage was the company store porch.

It was on that porch that (through daylight hours) “great minds” went to work each day deciding what mischief could be arranged for the evening. During breaks between games, a small coke, a bag of chips and a moon pie usually accompanied the normal “Porch Sitter,” as we re-energized ourselves for another sporting event—be it basketball with a homemade back board and rim near the store; baseball at what we titled “Stickweed Stadium,” or football, usually beside Verdunville Grade School. Yes, it was tackle football, and no, there were no helmets, pads or any other protective gear. Most definitely, it was very competitive, fun and dangerous.

Over the years, the “Porch Sitters” grew up, but not before they concluded some interesting times. In their past was the antics of Halloween such as the blocking of roads with huge fires, running from the State Police afterwards, and throwing balloons filled with water from a small cliff near the road onto the windshields of passing automobiles. The sounds of gunfire often accompanied all of the above, but the adrenalin rush came with the heart pounding in the chest as the hills seemed to envelope the escaping “Porch Sitters” in their dark-of-night getaways. One of the guys still swears to this day that he did not know the elderly woman was in the toilet when he turned it over during that one particular Halloween evening. And I believe him. After all, he did admit to putting fresh dog manure in a paper bag, setting it afire, and then placing it on a neighbor’s porch. After knocking on the family’s door, he would scamper to a hiding place and watch and laugh as a man would open the door and instinctively start stomping the bag.

I believe that wintertime was harsher during those formative years, as the various creeks would freeze over and remain that way for days; as did the Guyandotte River. When it snowed, the roads that pierced through the coal camps were never plowed. As a result, an old car hood would serve as a sleigh after it was connected to the back of a vehicle that usually had chains on the tires. The driver then would travel up and down the snowy roads pulling kids perched on the hood. An occasional accident would add a bloody Christmas color to the snow.

Mail order catalogs were the thing of the day. My mother and others usually relied on Montgomery-Ward, Sears or J.C. Penny catalogs to purchase mostly clothes that would arrive by mail to the tiny post office that stood near the company store. Most other Christmas presents were either purchased at the company store or sometimes in the town of Logan. There simply was no such thing known as a “shopping mall.” The Trailways Bus Lines provided regular bus service to and from the town and to most parts of the county. The bus terminal was located in the area where Wendy’s in Logan now operates.

Snowmen were comprised in most yards and snowball battles were part of the wintry days, but as day turned into night, both boys and girls headed toward a flickering fire seen upon the ice-glazed hill that led to the school that today still serves the community. Hours upon hours were spent riding sleds off the hill and around a sharp curve at the bottom that was difficult to maneuver. Since nobody had a watch, time was never a factor. We came and went as we pleased, always entering our homes with frostbitten feet that were warmed by standing on top of a gas floor furnace that was usually located in the center of the home. The smell of burning rubber from our boots would result from standing on the furnace; a furnace, which over the years had left many scars on small children who playfully would fall onto them while running through the house. The furnaces had been put into nearly all the coal camp houses once gas lines reached the area. Prior to that, each home had a fire place. Outside toilets also were the norm, until water lines were expanded to the region. I’m not sure, but that entire infrastructure likely happened in either the 1940’s or ‘50’s.

Snow filtered sunlight combined with smoke from nearby slate dumps gave an eerie daylight experience to the coal camps. Dust from an Island Creek company mine tipple was a daily experience that in the summertime left women sweeping their porches daily. In the winter, a black faced coal miner could easily be spotted through the spitting snow showers as he walked up the alley from work, his dinner bucket in hand.

Long walks up the railroad tracks at nighttime were routine for the adventurous “Porch Sitters.” Occasionally, a vehicle would stop and the driver, who had made a wrong turn somewhere, would ask for directions to Logan. Our answer was always the same: “You can’t get there from here.” We enjoyed the blank look on the driver’s face when he drove off mumbling to himself.

Most of the time, we had no real destination when we traversed the railroad tracks, oftentimes seeing who could walk on a rail for the longest distance without falling off. There was, however, one spot along the way that we always stopped to rest and to gander at a dimly lighted cinder-block building that stood across the creek from the tracks. Occasionally, when a patron would stagger out of the only entrance to the location and was headed to the toilet out back, the sound of music could be heard from a jukebox inside the smoke filled beer-joint that was simply called “John’s.” The closer it got to Christmas, the more the music seemed to be played each night, and one particular song was repeated time after time—“Blue Christmas.” Sitting on the railroad tracks for long periods of time, we imagined being behind the ominous walls that shielded two billiard tables, a jukebox, a pinball machine, a bar, and an unusual man, named “John.”

There was always a mystery to the place called “John’s.” To the “Porch Sitters,” it was an environment that was forbidden ground. We had heard many stories about the place and sometimes witnessed men fighting on the unpaved parking lot. Yes, we desired that intriguing environment.

Years later, we would cross over the divide and leave the shadows for a dose of reality behind the cinder blocked walls that held many mysteries, including as to why “Blue Christmas” was played so much. But, that is a story best left for another day.

Dreamers that we were, the “Porch Sitters” were content at the time. There might not be a BB gun wrapped neatly under a Christmas tree for any of us. And, it was not likely that anyone would receive a new bicycle. Ah, but the sweet smell of mother’s homemade gingerbread cookies made up for everything after a long evening in the snow.

Besides, we didn’t need a lot. After all, we had our friends and family—as well as our company store porch that even had a telephone booth.

Have a joyful Christmas with your family and friends.

Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.

*Published with the author’s permission.

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6 Responses to Coal camp Christmas memories

  1. Bob. Piros says:

    Christmas time in our home in Cherry Tree
    was very special as my Mom(Helen) would bake
    delicious Hungarian Kalacs bread made with
    Poppy seeds. She learned how to make the
    bread from her Mom (Susan) who was from
    Hungary. Mom also made walnut crescent &
    jelly filled wine cookies.These wonderful treats
    would last for weeks.

    Hopefully there are still some Hungarian families
    who still live in Logan who make the Kalacs bread.

    My Dad(Joe) would help her set up a table for
    Santa Claus & leave out some of the bread &
    cookies & some coffee for him.

    Santa Claus was a special person in my young life as
    I worried about how he would bring our presents.
    We had a fireplace but a gas stove was there for heat.
    My parents told me not to worry as he had magic dust
    & he could go through the door.

    I use to listen for his reindeer to land on our roof as
    I drifted off to sleep.
    One Christmas I was about 8 years old at the time,
    I woke up hearing voices, thinking it was
    Santa Claus, so I quitely went down the stairs
    and peeked and wow what a shock I got.
    There were my parents sitting at the table and
    eating the snacks left for Santa but the presents
    were under the tree, so I figured he had already
    been there and left,so I went back to bed.

    Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to all.
    Please have a Safe and Peaceful New Year.

  2. Teresa Adkins says:

    Awesome Dewight that was awesome I could smell the burning rubber band gingerbread and feel the snow riding down Verdenville hill thank you so much for the flash back

  3. Tammie Aleshire says:

    What great memories OURS was the best.Glad to share this journey with you Dwight.PRICELESS !!

  4. Virgie Carter says:

    Yes, i am also a coal camp kid. moved to mud fork/verdunville in the fifth grade. Fifth and Sixth grade was at Avis Grade School, (would love to have a picture of that special place). then started 7th grade at Logan Junior High School and finished at Logan Senior High School. Oh, we all had a porch, at my house in the coal camp in upper Mud Fork and there was also a porch at “Maggie”s Store”, we sat on that porch many times with our bottled coke with peanuts. Maggie was a lady that was always so nice when we came in with our pennies to buy candy. Loved Christmas time in the coal camp. We came home from school with excitement. There were no presents, and we didn’t miss them because all the kids were in the same boat, there was a long sock for each kid, with a apple, orange, candy and nuts in the sock on Christmas morning. My dad was a Island Creek Coal Co. Miner (#22). A special dinner for Christmas day. We kids from the coal camp would gather on the road in front of our homes, and skate back and forth on the road. Back then there was only a car on the road occasionally, we simply moved off the road when an automobile needed to pass. My time in the coal camp is etched in my memory and wish all kids could experience coal camp living. It was so good.

  5. Neltha Adkins says:

    When I close my eyes and go back to the coal camp days, I can still smell the distinct odor of the coal burning in the fireplace and see the low, amber glow that shown into the room after the fire was “banked” for the night. I attended Curry Grade School the first three grades before the “new” Verdunville School was built. I remember how thrilled we were to have a cafeteria in the new school. No such thing in the old school. Also, had pot bellied stoves that burned coal in those school rooms at Curry. I remember the post mistresses, Lily Mae and Loretta. Got our mail from a little locked box there from a wall of little locked boxes. Life was good in the coal camps 🙂